Schooling for a Photographer: Certification and Training Information

While a formal degree is not required for a photographer, they can improve their skills by enrolling in degree and certificate programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels, as well as standalone courses. Learn more about program curricula and job prospects for aspiring photographers.

Essential Information

Many colleges and universities offer photography training at multiple degree levels and in several different formats. Undergraduates can earn an associate's degree or bachelor's degree in the field. Advanced photographers who have bachelor's degrees may enroll in a master's degree program. It is also possible to earn a certificate in photography or take standalone courses. Some of these programs and classes may be offered online or in hybrid formats.

Associate's Degree in Photography

At the associate's degree level, programs are usually offered specifically in digital photography. Students can find Associate of Arts (AA), Associate of Applied Science (AAS) and Associate of Science (AS) degrees in this field. In addition to general education courses, students are trained in basic digital photography techniques, and they gain familiarity with the basic technologies and software used in the field. Common topics of study include:

  • History of photography
  • Commercial photography
  • Digital imaging
  • Lighting and color theory
  • Photography and communications
  • Business of photography

Bachelor's Degree in Photography

Undergraduates can earn a Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Science (BS) or Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree in photography. Students can also find programs that are offered online, as well as accelerated programs that last only three years, instead of the four that it usually takes to earn a bachelor's degree. Like associate's degree programs, bachelor's degree programs require students to take general education classes as well as photography-specific coursework. Students may also have the opportunity to study other areas of art that can supplement their understanding of photography. Here are some common topics that students may learn about in addition to subjects studied at the associate's degree level:

  • Aesthetics of photography
  • Digital narratives and documentary
  • Photography and social media
  • Digital imaging innovations
  • Introduction to film history
  • History of design

Master's Degree in Photography

After earning a bachelor's degree in photography, students may seek more advanced training by enrolling in a Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Photography program. These programs typically last two years and usually include advanced studies in digital and film photography, multiple software programs and aesthetic and technical theories of photography. Students may be required to write a thesis and/or prepare an exhibition of their work prior to graduation. When they finish, they will have developed a solid portfolio of work that they can present to potential employers or clients to demonstrate their skills. The following topics may be included in the curriculum:

  • Photographic technique and signification
  • Photography portfolio process
  • Experimental photography
  • Digital printing methodology
  • Photography critique

Certificate in Photography

For students who do not want to commit to a full degree program but still want to study photography, a certificate may be a suitable alternative. Certificate programs generally consist of a short series of courses in the basics of photography, lasting a year or less. They are designed for both aspiring professionals and hobbyists who want to hone their skills. Often, courses are held in the evenings or on weekends in order to accommodate the schedules of working professionals. It is important to note that students need to have their own digital cameras, photo quality paper and laptop with photography-specific software.

Most certificate programs provide a general introduction to the field, but it is important to note that there are also specialized certificate programs that focus on specific subjects such as digital workflow, portrait photography and studio photography. Students who enroll in general programs can expect to study some of the following topics:

  • Using software applications (Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom)
  • Fine art exhibition
  • Social, political and artistic trends in photography
  • Self-publishing
  • Stock photography
  • Freelancing and legal issues for independent photographers

Standalone Courses

Another common non-degree study option for non-professionals is to take standalone courses from community colleges or for-profit institutions. Many schools offer classes to meet the needs of beginning, intermediate and advanced photographers. Here are some standalone courses that may be available:

  • Black and white photography
  • Photographing people with a digital camera
  • Advanced Adobe Lightroom
  • iPhone and iPad Photography and Moviemaking
  • Introduction to speedlight flash photography
  • Portrait photography

Career Options

Aspiring photographers who have only an undergraduate degree or certificate may build their skills by pursing an entry-level job assisting professional photographers, helping them to set up photo shoots, and preparing and using cameras, darkrooms and digital equipment. This can improve their job prospects in the future. While aspiring photographers may find employment with professional photography companies, marketing firms or news organizations, it is important to note that more businesses are contracting work to freelance photographers, so many are choosing to work independently. Possible job options include:

  • Freelance photographer
  • Photojournalist
  • Portrait photographer
  • Industrial photographer
  • Scientific photographer

Job Outlook

As of May 2015, the median annual salary for photographers was $31,710. Employment is expected to increase by 3% from 2014 to 2024, which is slower than the national average for all occupations.


Photography certification is available through the Professional Photographic Certification Commission (PPCC). Certified photographers may have an edge on competitors when vying for employment or freelance jobs. Interested candidates must submit an application and pass a written test. Applicants may also be required to turn in a portfolio of completed work.

Aspiring photographers who choose to complete formal schooling may select from programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels. To improve job prospects, graduates may elect to pursue professional certification.

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